View of Cotopaxi
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Arty Fact

More about View of Cotopaxi

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Frederic Edwin Church proves that Cotopaxi isn’t the name of ridiculously overpriced activewear for no reason.

Cotopaxi is an Ecuadorian volcano in the Andes mountains and is located a nerve-wracking thirty-seven miles away from the country’s capital, Quito. Now, it’s no surprise that volcanoes erupt; it’s what they do. But Cotopaxi is a stratovolcano, a type of volcano that can erupt thousands of times over its millions of years in existence. It’s also part of the “Ring of Fire.” No, not that song by Johnny Cash. It's the hundreds of active volcanoes that surround the Pacific Ocean. But this is just the sort of danger and majesty that drew the Romantics to such scenes of natural wonder.

As a member of the second generation of Hudson River School painters, Church wasn’t afraid to stray from the scenic Hudson Valley in search of a nice vista elsewhere. Influenced by the German explorer and writer Alexander von Humboldt’s hippie-dippy philosophy about the interconnectedness of nature, he went to Ecuador in search of scenes that demonstrated the Earth's divine power. He traveled to this region of South America multiple times, making his first trip in 1853. During these trips, Church made sketches to prepare for as many as ten later paintings of the mighty volcano. He painted this view in 1857, just before his second trip south. 

Like many other artists belonging to the Romantic movement, Church contemplated the idea of the sublime in nature. It’s easy to imagine yourself as the small figure in the lower right corner, marveling at the view. Although smaller, this figure recalls the Rückenfigur (the compositional device of depicting a figure from behind) of the Caspar David Friedrich’s work Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, which was later interpreted by Glenn Ligon in 2009.

Much like Emanuel Leutze’s work Washington Crossing the Delaware, Cotopaxi is full of lies. Church exaggerated the volcano’s shape, creating a perfectly painted cone. More importantly, the real Cotopaxi is in a barren landscape, not surrounded by the beautiful vegetation that he painted. In a classic Church move, he invented the landscape around the volcano to create what he thought would be an ideal image. Unfortunately, this cognitive dissonance was of the same kind that fueled the imperialist point of view that insisted this land was ripe for the taking.




  1. Encyclopedia Britannica. “Cotopaxi.” Mountains & Volcanoes. Accessed 24 September 2020.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica. “Edward Whymper.” Nonfiction Authors L-Z. Accessed 24 September 2020.
  3. Klemetti, Erik. “A Restless Volcano Puts Ecuador on Edge Once More.” Wired. 17 June 2015. Accessed 24 September 2020.
  4. Smithsonian Institution. “Cotopaxi.” National Museum of Natural History. Global Volcanism Program. 2013. Accessed 24 September 2020.
  5. Stark, David, and Lara Taylor. American Art. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2008. Accessed 24 September 2020.
  6. The Art Institute of Chicago. “View of Cotopaxi.” Collection. Accessed 25 September 2020.
  7. The Art Story. “Frederic Edwin Church.” Artists. Accessed 24 September 2020.

Comments (5)


Wow! That is my first thought when I saw this painting, the colors are so warm and relaxing. I really like the greenery and nature all around in this painting and how the artist was able to make so much detail in every plant.


This painting is so beautiful! If nobody had told me it was a painting, I for sure would have assumed that it was a photo. First looking at this painting I thought it looked like a postcard from a trip. The mountains in the back at a lot of depth to the painting as well. Closer to the front you see some trees and some brush. That looks very detailed to me. Looking at it, it is like you can see leaves. There is some white on the leaves in the painting, showing possible light illuminating on the trees. The artist is able to paint very realistically as it looks like a photo. You can even see the mist from the waterfall. Frederic Edwin Church shows us a painting that looks like a photo.


This piece is definitely one of my favorites. The details of the mountains and waterfall give depth and texture. It looks like I could touch any of the items because of all the detail making the whole piece look completely realistic.

Lexi K

Out of all the artworks I've seen on this site, this one is by far one of my favorites. I love the technique that the painter uses to give this painting a sense of realism. I also appreciate how Church took great attention to detail with his waterfall and added the mist. These kinds of details help elevate a picture from good to great.

Kent Z

If no one told me this is a painting, I would think it is a perspective photo. There are vivid descriptions about everything in the painting, such as the person in the middle of the fall, and another woman is watching that guy, etc. The mountain behind is much more powerful and gives audiences a shock by its brilliant.